Leading in the age of authenticity


Students sit in a chapel classroom

The Rev. Dr. Justin Nickel describes his new theology class at LTSS as a spiritual workout. The elective course, Christian Faith in the Age of Authenticity, encourages students to exercise intense introspection and deep dive into their views of religion.

Based on works by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the class examines cultural changes and how they impact today’s practice of ministry.

“The notion is that from the 1960s forward, we're living in a time of authenticity where the primary goal is to sort of live as an authentic a life as your inner desires and your inner sense of who you are will allow. Your life goal is to make the rest of your life cohere with those inner things,” said Nickel. “The class is intended to introduce people to Taylor's work and to kind of test that, to see if this is true of the lives of our students and then to think about both the challenges and opportunities an age of authenticity presents for Christian faith.”

Students do a lot of “soul work,” said Nickel, adding that the class is made of an interesting mix of young people preparing for the ministry and local pastors who have been working for 30 years, and includes cultural and racial diversity.

“I really value that there’s an honesty in the classroom. It’s very life giving. It can be a very exciting and generative place to be,” said Nickel.

Students are encouraged to question their own, as well as society’s, tendency toward self-idolatry, which is especially relevant in the age of social media and the internet.  

“Our students are either pastoring to people or will be pastoring to people who think and feel this way. It’s important to question how churches are welcoming some of these convictions and expressions and also challenging others or other parts of them,” he said.

Nickel is no stranger to the ministry. He served in communities in Colorado and Pennsylvania after earning his bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of Colorado and his master’s degree in divinity from Luther Seminary. From there, he completed his Ph.D. in religion and society at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Relying on his experiences in academia as well as the church, Nickel has created unique and out-of-the-box assignments, including asking students to share pieces of art with which they feel deeply connected and identifying how it reflects on their lives. They will also craft a theological autobiography, allowing themselves and others to examine and critique how they developed their beliefs. Nickel says the vulnerability displayed thus far by the students has been impressive and is important to the ethos of the class.

“I think this type of work gives students a different lens into what theology is and can be,” said Nickel.

While the class is new to LTSS, there are other professionals in the Christian world examining the concept of authenticity. It’s crucial work, according to Nickel.

“I want to give students a chance to sort of step into those conversations and learn – to be a part of a conversation that's going on more broadly in the church and the culture. How do you invite people into the life of God offered in Christ in a way that both speaks to these concerns of authenticity and transcends them? I think these are real and important pastoral formation questions that we need to ponder.”

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